Apr 26, 2022 - Health

Scoop: Many COVID treatment pills going unused

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The Biden administration is attempting to address its latest COVID problem: There are plenty of oral treatments, but only a fraction of the available federal supply is reaching patients.

Why it matters: A large part of the justification for dropping pandemic precautions is that we now have effective COVID treatments available for people at risk of severe illness. The question is how easily patients can get them.

Driving the news: The administration is announcing a series of actions this morning aimed at making oral antivirals more accessible — and to make sure patients and providers know about them.

  • Beginning this week, pharmacies in the federal antiviral program will be allowed to order doses directly from the federal government, which the administration expects will as much as double the number of locations in which the pills are available from the current 20,000 "over the coming weeks."
  • The administration will also establish new federally supported test-to-treat sites and ramp up efforts to educate providers and the public about the availability of the oral antivirals and who should take them.

State of play: Paxlovid, Pfizer's highly effective antiviral pill, was in short supply a few months ago when it was first authorized for use, but that's no longer the case.

  • The federal government is currently making 175,000 doses of Paxlovid available each week, according to HHS data. These doses are allocated to states, territories, the federal test-to-treat program and long term care facilities.
  • But states are ordering only around two-thirds of what's available to them, and are using around half of what they order, a senior Biden administration official told Axios.
  • In total — including the federal test-to-treat program and what states have ordered — around 47,000 doses were administered the week of April 17.

The big picture: There are more than 40,000 new COVID cases and several hundred deaths being reported each day, per the CDC.

  • Although the caseload pales in comparison to this winter's highs, and most of the population has some form of immunity to the virus, at least some of these deaths could likely be prevented by more widespread use of antivirals.

Between the lines: Patients and providers may still be acting as if there's a shortage of pills.

  • Providers may be limiting access to antiviral prescriptions because "we've had the experience in this pandemic before of operating in a scarcity mindset," another senior administration official told reporters on a call. So the administration is trying to "really drive home that we’ve got enough Paxlovid for patients who meet the [FDA] criteria."
  • "This is the same thing as for vaccines early on — there may have been places with plenty of supply, but it was not getting to individuals unless they specifically qualified, and even those individuals may not have known how to access it," said Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor at George Washington University.
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